Foreign Policy

Because the U.S. Exports Coronavirus, Trump Is Blaming Mexicans

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EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here. You can also listen to our weekly coronavirus podcast, Don’t Touch Your Face, and subscribe to our newsletters here.

Since the beginning of his administration’s abysmal response to COVID-19, U.S. President Donald Trump has cast about for someone else to blame for the devastation the pandemic has wrought. It was only a matter of time before he returned to his favorite scapegoat: Mexicans.

Indeed, reporting by the Associated Press confirms that the Trump administration is looking for ways to connect the surge in cases to Mexico. Never mind that Trump himself has encouraged states to reopen and loosen public health orders that prevent the spread of COVID-19. It’s not hard to see Trump’s plan for what it is: When the disease inevitably continues to spread in the United States, he will say Latinos are to blame.

It’s not just Trump. Other Republicans have followed suit. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar asked officials in the Department of Homeland Security if a rise in cases might be connected to Cinco de Mayo celebrations. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has said that it is “overwhelmingly Hispanic” farmworkers who are to blame for Florida’s surge in cases. It’s a misleading and disingenuous move by the Florida governor: First, deny COVID-19 protections to the farmworkers feeding the United States, then blame them when they get sick.

This trend of scapegoating Latinos for COVID-19 isn’t just insulting and racist. It’s part of a long history of blaming “dirty” Mexicans for spreading disease. In the 1910s, border guards in El Paso, Texas, forced Mexicans crossing the border to take “baths” in kerosene tubs, a practice which sparked a riot in 1917. The 1920s saw Mexican homes in Los Angeles burned down after an outbreak of bubonic plague was deemed “Mexican disease.”

In the 1940s and 1950s, Mexican bracero farmworkers coming to the United States would be sprayed with DDT, a toxic pesticide that was later banned. And in 2020, COVID-19 has allowed Donald Trump to finally end any semblance of asylum at the border, worsening an already urgent humanitarian crisis.

But Trump’s smear campaign against Latinos today is particularly insidious. Latinos are disproportionately infected with COVID-19 in part because they are disproportionately among the essential workers keeping the United States running, with only 16 percent of Latino workers able to work remotely. From the janitors disinfecting hospitals to the farmworkers picking crops, this is the finest hour of the Latino workers so often dismissed as “unskilled” labor. Furthermore, it is the United States that is effectively exporting COVID-19 to its neighbors in Mexico and the rest of Latin America—via deportations.

Indeed, it is the Trump administration that has allowed Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers to become vectors of disease. And it’s the Trump administration that has insisted on continuing to deport people to countries across the region that are ill-equipped to deal with a major outbreak. It is Mexico that should complain about it’s neighbor spreading COVID-19, not the United States.

The Trump administration’s unhelpfulness to its neighbors in the midst of the pandemic is all the more offensive because Mexico is the United States’ most crucial ally in the fight against COVID-19. The U.S. medical supply chain relies on Mexico for ventilators, thermometers, and hospital beds—lifesaving products that Mexicans will not be able to use themselves. Mexican workers have been exposed to and died from COVID-19 working to continue supplying the United States with everything from auto parts to medical gear.

These factories have continued operating, putting Mexican workers at risk, at the explicit request of U.S. corporations and the Trump administration itself. Meanwhile, despite his border shutdowns and immigration bans, Trump continues to allow farmworkers on H-2A visas to come from Mexico to work on U.S. farms, implicitly recognizing that without these Mexican workers, Americans wouldn’t eat.

The Trump administration knows it is acting in bad faith when it blames Mexico for an outbreak in the United States. That bad faith makes it all the more remarkable that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador agreed to come to Washington to meet with Trump for the first foreign trip of his presidency. López Obrador stood in the Rose Garden and, amazingly, told Americans that Trump had treated Mexico with “kindness and respect.” The cringe-inducing clip is guaranteed to appear in a Trump campaign advertisement. This is obviously what Trump wanted out of the visit all along, and the Mexican president is smart enough to know it.

López Obrador’s decision to praise a man who once called Mexicans “rapists and killers” is the humiliating culmination of his complicity in Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. The 2019 El Paso massacre, in which 8 Mexican citizens were killed alongside more than a dozen Americans, should have taught him the danger of providing any aid to the most anti-Mexican president in recent U.S. history. Yet despite promising during his campaign to not do the United States’ “dirty work” on migration, López Obrador has gone as far as ordering the Mexican National Guard to assist in Trump’s crackdown on Central American migrants.

This time, however, he has crossed the line into U.S. domestic politics. Yet despite López Obrador’s diplomatic own goal, Democrats will surely continue to seek a positive relationship with Mexico.

The real victims of the Mexican leader’s visit are ultimately not the Democrats. They are the millions of Mexicans and Mexican Americans who live in the United States for whom a Trump reelection would be catastrophic. It is these populations that have borne the brunt of the Trump administration’s disastrous response to the pandemic, as well as his racist rhetoric and policies. The millions of Mexican Americans in the United States could someday prove a powerful tool for Mexican influence in the United States. For now, however, López Obrador has abandoned the Mexican diaspora in the United States at a truly desperate hour.

In return, Trump appears set to insult Mexico again by deploying troops along the border in October, just as he did before the 2018 midterm campaign. Another caravan panic is no doubt in store for the general election. The Trump campaign’s strategy for the fall is already clear: Double down on racial resentment and try to pin the coronavirus crisis on someone else.

With the outbreak in Mexico likely to continue worsening, thanks in large part to the Trump administration’s own actions, Trump’s scapegoating of Mexico and Latino immigrants for the United States’ out-of-control pandemic has only just begun—and a campaign season full of bigotry is likely to follow. Tragically, this will undermine the U.S.-Mexico cooperation that is necessary for both countries to defeat COVID-19.


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